UNC needs its running backs to step up

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- When fall camp began, North Carolina assistant coach Seth Littrell made a promise to the team's tailbacks. This season, he told them, the Tar Heels were going to run the ball a lot.

In UNC's opening scrimmage, that's exactly what happened. The tailbacks got their touches, and they responded by breaking off a series of big runs. It was a refreshing change of pace.

"We're going to be good at running back," junior T.J. Logan said. "I'm telling people that now so it'll be no surprise."

Logan's confidence aside, the emergence of North Carolina's ground game would represent something of a pleasant surprise for Tar Heels fans.

A year ago, UNC averaged the fewest carries by running backs of any team in the ACC. Those running backs averaged just 4.44 yards per rush, which ranked 12th in the league. There was depth on the roster at tailback, but it rarely translated into an effective ground game.

"When we evaluated our problems, we knew we had to establish ourselves running the football," coach Larry Fedora said. "It was a point of emphasis going in. We're going to run the football, and we're going to be effective. We'll put the onus on that offensive line and the running backs."

Fedora is well positioned to make that call. North Carolina returns four experienced tailbacks and the entirety of its offensive line. The Heels also add true freshman running back Ty'Son Williams, who has drawn rave reviews in his first few weeks of practice.

"He has a lot to learn but he's picking it up quick, reading his keys, hitting holes very well. He's making a lot of guys miss," Logan said. "I'm hearing good things from the defense so I know that's a good sign."

But depth wasn't a problem last season. Production was.

The 2014 Tar Heels relied heavily on QB Marquise Williams to run the ball, but after offseason surgery to repair a hip injury, he's promised to take fewer chances running the ball this season. That shifts the onus back to the tailbacks.

As much as Fedora wants Logan and Co. to get the ball more, however, he needs to see results.

"Wherever the production is coming from, that's where the the ball is going," he said.

So the tailbacks need to be productive early, and that's been a problem. Over the past two seasons, UNC's running backs have averaged just 3.81 yards-per-rush through the end of October -- the third-worst rate among Power 5 programs.

In both seasons, however, the running backs have acclimated by midseason. In 2013, Logan emerged as a future star down the stretch run of his freshman year. In 2014, UNC's running backs averaged 5.4 yards per rush in November and December, trailing only Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh in the ACC.

Spreading that wealth over a full season is paramount this time around, and Logan said it starts with the right attitude.

"It's just getting out early, telling ourselves we have to run the ball early to be successful," he said.

So the spotlight is clearly on Logan and Williams, Elijah Hood and Romar Morris. The opportunity is there, the pieces are in place, the QB needs protection. Now it's up to the tailbacks to get the job done.

"If they're productive, you give them the ball more and more," Fedora said. "It's about productivity."